In political circles this case has become front and center again as Sam Rainsy had made remarks repeating accusations the former King Sihanouk had made in 1990 in France. Those remarks are now the subject of libel lawsuit brought by Hor Nam Hong against Sam Rainsy.
Many of Sam Rainsy’s supporters simply repeat his words without knowing too much about the context or the history, for that matter; many of those supporters are just young hotspurs that were born well after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime and in many instances are only superficially familiar with that tragic part of Cambodia’s history. The general belief is that someone who was in some official capacity during the Khmer Rouge government must have bloody hands. Older contemporaries that were victims or prisoners in the camp, steadfastly maintain that Hor Nam Hong was there in an official capacity and was responsible for the death of thousands of prisoners. Concrete evidence to Hor Nam Hong’s complicity in or outright responsibility for the death of prisoners has so far not been presented by anyone. As opposed to the Nazi concentration camps in Germany, where the Germans kept detailed records of their atrocities, not enough documents survived to make a solid case.
In early 2001 the Phnom Penh Post published an article with an interview with a survivor of the Boeng Trabek camp. The words spoken by Keo Bunthouk, a respected Senator at that time, need to be analyzed thoroughly in a legal context in order to find out whether or not his testimony is incriminating Hor Nam Hong in such a way as to clearly make the case of his culpability. In a court of law there are material witnesses, material evidence, and circumstantial evidence. The aggregate of this, presented to the judge and/or a jury, will form the basis on which they can reach a decision or verdict on the matter. The question is whether Keo Bunthouk’s words stand up to the test for convincing evidence. Short of reading the transcripts of the lawsuit in France, it must be assumed that his testimony at that time was basically identical to his words in the interview.
This is an excerpt of the article and the interview with annotations in blue by the writer:
The Senate debate's most moving and controversial moments came when septuagenarian Funcinpec Senator Keo Bunthouk, a survivor of the Khmer Rouge's Boeng Trabek "re-education camp", reiterated Foreign Minister Hor Namhong's involvement in the camp's administration.
Phelim Kyne and Vong Sokheng spoke to Senator Bunthouk about life and death in Boeng Trabek.
In early 1976, Keo Bunthouk followed her husband, Paris-based Cambodian UNESCO delegate Ieng Kounsaky, in answering the invitation of leaders of the Khmer Rouge's Democratic Kampuchea to return to Cambodia to assist in the country's rebuilding.Instead, Bunthouk, her husband and fellow members of GRUNK, the France-based Royalist anti-Lon Nol opposition front, found themselves confined in the Phnom Penh "re-education camp" of Boeng Trabek.
Another newspaper account based on documents puts Hor Nam Hong in Boeng Trabek for the same reasons. He followed the KR regime’s invitation to help re-build the country but found himself in that same re-education camp.
Established in early 1976 to "re-educate" government officials of the Lon Nol and Sihanouk regimes, Boeng Trabek was divided into a youth section of approximately 150 people and a section in which approximately 50 returned diplomats and former government officials were confined. At least twenty of Boeng Trabek's inmates died of overwork or after being transferred to the nearby Toul Sleng torture center.
In 1991, Bunthouk was the only one of three witnesses who testified in a Paris court on behalf of then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk in a civil suit filed by Foreign Minister Hor Namhong. The suit was in response to the King's assertions in an interview that Hor Namhong had "...commanded a Khmer Rouge concentration camp ... [and was] responsible for the death and torture of many former members of the anti-American resistance, notably Prince Sisowath Metheavi."
The case was decided in favor of Hor Namhong.
Q: What do you remember of your return to Cambodia in 1976?
A: It was very sad...we arrived at the airport and the people who knew us didn't dare say hello.They were all dressed in black and didn't say anything. [The Khmer Rouge] made us work. We stayed two weeks in Phnom Penh and then they sent us to Battambang. We worked there for five or six months in the fields, then they brought me join my husband in Phnom Penh. We worked very hard...certain diplomats were with us including Hor Namhong..."
Q: What was life like at Boeng Trabek?
A: We worked hard and didn't eat well. We were there with the Princess [Nanette Metheavi, sister of Queen Monineath] and others. There were daily sessions of criticism and self criticism.
Q: Were you aware of the deaths and disappearances of people at Boeng Trabek?
A: We didn't know the people who were taken away were killed. I thought maybe they were taken to another camp. Only after 1981 [did I learn that] people taken from the camp were taken to Toul Sleng and lived only about one month. I didn't know they went to their deaths. I thought they maybe went to a more difficult camp because I noticed [those taken away] had committed minor faults. I don't understand [their deaths]...if it was people who had done grave faults I could understand, but it wasn't, it was people who'd just done minor things...that's what preoccupies me, that's why I think in all this country [during the KR regime] people were killed for nothing. I think a lot about this because I pity the people who were killed [who] used to live and work with me. I know that they did not commit any mistake, so why did they take them all to kill them...why were children killed as well?"
Q: What do you remember about Hor Namhong's role at Boeng Trabek?
A: He was with us...Hor Namhong was the Director...he made his wife director of women [prisoners] and his son chief of youth [prisoners]. Hor Namhong criticized people [at the daily criticism/self-criticism sessions], but we could also criticize him. I once criticized him for making his wife chief of women and his son chief of youth. The whole family went to Angka Leu (met with KR party leaders) and the rest of the camp didn't know [anything]. I realized we didn't know whom he talked to, who Angka Leu (the KR leaders who Hor Namhong met) was. I have never found out who Angka Leu was...I imagine it might have been Son Sen or Ieng Sary [but] I don't know.
Q: Who should be held responsible for the murders of Boeng Trabek inmates?
A: Now you repeat this question and maybe Hor Namhong will want to assassinate me, what will happen to me? I've heard that Hor Namhong wants to sue...the newspaper that said he was Khmer Rouge. For me, I don't know whether Hor Namhong was Khmer Rouge or not. I don't know if he chose people [sent to] Toul Sleng, but I noticed that when there was even minor criticism of someone [by Hor Namhong], two days after this person [was taken away] and we didn't know where he went. Hor Namhong says that it was not him [who ordered inmates taken to Toul Sleng], but how could it be? Who could have taken all those people to be killed? He was director of the camp...why did [the Khmer Rouge] take [Boeng Trabek inmates] awav to be killed?
Q: What was your involvement in the 1991 civil suit initiated by Hor Namhong against King Sihanouk?
A: I was a witness for King Sihanouk when he said in the [Paris] newspaper that Hor Namhong was an assassin. Hor Namhong brought two communist lawyers [to the court] ... the King didn't have a lawyer so the court appointed a lawyer for the King who knew nothing of the King or Boeng Trabek ... he just listened. The other witnesses [Princess Sisowath Ayravady and Sao Kim Hong] didn't dare show up. The King lost the case because we were called in last [to give testimony]. Hor Namhong brought in false witnesses...those who were not in the camp or people who came ...when things were okay and everybody ate well [in the last four months before the collapse of the Khmer Rouge regime]. [Those] other witnesses, if they accused me of not having proved [the King's case], they should bring in the children of the victims [to testify].
Q: Do you believe the KR Tribunal law will be able to deliver real justice?
A: This is a good law to find out who killed people. [Former Khmer Rouge leaders] have to come and tell us what happened, why it happened. We all want to know why they took people to be killed. I expect that the trial will be good if it has good international judges [and because] the international community is watching us. If the court asks me to testify I will go as I did for the King's case, but there will be a question whether I have any proof. But there are children whose parents died in the camp who may know more details than me.
Apart from not having presented any new and concrete evidence of his own, some of the things Sam Rainsy has said in the past don’t match with that testimony, especially that he, Sam Rainsy, helped find King Sihanouk an attorney. The witness said King Sihanouk did not have an attorney but was appointed one by the court.
In light of Sihanouk’s initial role as head of state of the DK and his alliance with the Khmer Rouge after the Vietnamese invasion, his accusations are somewhat dubious to begin with. One would think Sihanouk should be the last one to point a finger at anybody involved with the Khmer Rouge in one form or another, as he himself was for many years opportunistically in league with a fundamentally criminal organization that had brought endless misery to the country and its people. But for Sihanouk the end justified the means, even if it involved going to bed with murderers.
It can only be construed that he made those accusations for the benefit of the Western powers during the Paris peace talks. This vainglorious little man wanted to distance himself from his own role contributing to the mass killings and mutilations that occurred after the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge as a result of the millions of mines planted by them. He wanted to appear as the champion of a free and democratic Cambodia, as the savior of the country he regarded as his personal possession. Never mind that he was beholden to Chinese and North Korean dictators and received considerable financial support from them. He wanted the world to believe that he had no responsibility for whatever happened to his country.
As for Keo Bunthouk’s testimony, one must say that it is very weak at best. It contained no hard evidence but merely assumptions. This is not to undermine or question his credibility or integrity, but a material witness must have seen things happen and must identify persons or things so as to count as concrete evidence.
Keo Bunthouk’s did not see Hor Nam Hong select people to be sent to Tuol Sleng, nor did he hear him order it. Keo Bunthouk could criticize Hor Nam Hong himself. If only minor criticism resulted in people disappearing why wasn’t he sent to Tuol Sleng?
He called Hor Nam Hong the ‘director’ of the camp. Maybe the Khmer word ‘chawai’ is just translated wrong. It could mean ‘chief’, ‘boss’, ‘manager’ – all very ambiguous terms in the context.
It is known that Hor Nam Hong was the ‘chief’ or ‘head’ of prisoners but does that involve any authority? We don’t know. We can’t say for certain that he had authority to send people to Tuol Sleng nor can we say that he didn’t. There is simply no unearthed evidence that would prove Hor Nam Hong’s involvement in a responsible role of authority, culpability, or guilt.
The French court hearing this case must have come to the same conclusion. There was only one witness who gave unsubstantial testimony; the other two didn’t show up. Obviously no other evidence was presented, which led to no other conclusion but to find for the plaintiff. This is the way courts work. Sometimes, lawsuits are not about who is right and about justice but who has better, more credible and substantive evidence. The lack of evidence does not determine innocence in and of itself, but it certainly means that a defendant is not guilty in the eye of the law. Since we clamor so much about the rule of law, this is it. We must abide by it, whether or not we like the outcome.
Until such time as concrete evidence is presented, the axiom ‘in dubio pro reo’ must apply. Sam Rainsy had better come up with something real fast or he might look at another form of Cambodian hospitality.